Dina, directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, looks almost pastel, its colors prematurely sun-faded, as if shot through a filter of summer haze. It both softens its protagonists and desaturates them; the effect is equal parts cute and frank. Those could also be the descriptors for Dina itself, a documentary romantic comedy about a differently abled couple making a go of love in midlife. Following Dina Buno, a 49-year-old woman with Asperger’s and her autistic husband-to-be Scott, the film is mostly happy to stay in its sweetly mundane lane, but not without keeping a couple dramatic and moving bumps waiting down the road.
The film is mostly a character study of Dina herself, an opinionated social butterfly who in many ways bucks the stereotypes of people with her condition. She’s a devoted Sex and the City and Kardashians viewer, and like Carrie and Kim, she’s a serial romantic with a sexually adventurous side. Her fiancé, Scott, is a music lover and Walmart employee who, until he and Dina move in together, has never lived away from his parents. Living together presents some challenges for their conflicting needs and quirks, but most crucially, Scott is not as physically demonstrative of his love as the deeply affectionate, bleeding heart Dina.
Santini and Sickles mostly observe their relationship as flies on the wall, with locked-off tripod shots that capture scenes of awkwardness and vulnerability in all their unguarded roughness. I sense that they want to keep from slipping into editorializing, or using potentially exploitative cinematography. Ideally, Dina and Scott’s relationship will speak for itself, but the end result is a lot of uneventful stretches (a trip to Ocean City, various wedding preparations) that had me looking at my watch. Aside from the realities of their respective places on the spectrum, Dina and Scott’s life doesn’t look that different from any other working-class couple – they’re not like most couples we see onscreen, but for long stretches there isn’t much else to distinguish them.
What ultimately does distinguish them is Dina herself, and the way she eloquently, unashamedly tells Scott what she needs from him. Going through life neurologically atypical means being rejected and ignored constantly; all she asks of her partner is that he make her feel wanted. She doesn’t get it right away — there’s a heartbreaking sequence during their honeymoon where she waits in bed while Scott sings to himself and eats crackers in the next room, seemingly oblivious to the import of the night. (Scott has a phonographic memory for music and lyrics, one of several heartbreaking ironies about his difficulty showing affection — he can call up entire love songs by heart.) Later, in an emotional exchange, a past trauma in Dina’s life that has been hinted at throughout the film comes to light, in an effective and sparse bit of filmmaking by the directors. I’m not sure withholding it for so long added that much to the film overall, but the reveal is certainly a gut punch.
Dina bills itself as a “real-life romantic comedy,” and it’s more effective as a story about a woman who wants to be loved and cared for than it is about a differently abled couple. Promotion for the film has been opaque about Dina’s and Scott’s conditions, merely labeling her as “eccentric,” but the appeal of the film is that this basic desire of hers is anything but. As a woman with a seemingly boundless amount of love to share, she gives voice to an urge that most other romantic comedies take for granted.